Bipartisan Senate bill would change how Pa. charges children as adults | Tuesday Morning Coffee

A judge would have to sign off before a juvenile case is moved to to adult court

By: - January 24, 2023 7:18 am

(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)

A bipartisan trio of state Senate lawmakers want to change the circumstances under which children can be charged as adults by requiring judicial review before juvenile cases can be moved to adult court.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta,R-Westmoreland, joined by Sens. Vincent Hughes and Anthony Williams, both Philadelphia Democrats, began seeking co-sponsors for their proposal last week, arguing that the current practice of allowing prosecutors to directly charge children as adults is riddled with disparities and drives up recidivism.

Bartolotta and Williams introduced the same proposal in last year’s legislative session. It died in the Senate Judiciary Committee without ever coming to a vote.

Right now, “hundreds of youth under the age of 18 are charged as adults and automatically held in adult jails based on their initial charge (a practice often referred to as ‘direct file,'” the three lawmakers wrote in their Jan. 18 cosponsorship memo.

The proposal, as written, would require that all cases against children originate in juvenile court. And while children still could be charged as adults in some cases, the final call would be left to a juvenile court judge, “who is best equipped to make this determination,” they wrote.

(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)

To further buttress their case, the three lawmakers pointed to research by the state’s Juvenile Justice Task Force, which found in its 2021 report, both racial disparities in the use of direct file, and a high reversal rate among adult cases returned to juvenile court. The panel recommended ending the practice.

In the instance of the latter, the task force found that, while Black boys make up 7% of Pennsylvania’s youth population, they accounted for 58% of youth who were prosecuted as adults, the lawmakers wrote.

The panel also found that nearly 60% of the adult prosecutions of children returned to juvenile court were either dismissed or withdrawn, the lawmakers wrote. The panel further concluded that 80 percent of youth who were convicted in adult criminal court, were sentenced to jail or prison, serving an average, minimum term of 28 months.

The high dismissal/withdrawal rate, “represents a staggering waste of both taxpayer dollars and human potential, as young people await the outcome of their case in an adult jail that is not equipped to serve or support them.” the lawmakers wrote.

The practice raised similar concerns among some judges, according to the task force report, who felt that “prosecuting youth as adults is not consistent with evidence about adolescent development.”

According to the report, “one judge stated that statutorily excluding youth from the juvenile justice system does not align with evidence-based practices and should be eliminated.”

“‘The direct file seems to be going in a different direction than the recent Supreme Court cases that talk about how the brain doesn’t [fully] develop until you’re 25. If the direct file came about in the 90s, the current thinking based on the science says we should go in a different direction,'” the judge said, according to the report.

Another expert asserted that the juvenile system was better suited to handle young people than the adult judicial system, arguing that “‘we have the staff, and we know that adult probation is overloaded with cases and they can’t provide the services. … They’re just not as trained in evidence-based practices as we are,'” according to the task force’s report.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington (Image via the Pa. Senate GOP).

The three lawmakers also pointed to other research showing that prosecuting children as adults increased recidivism, especially a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report concluding that “transferring juveniles to the adult system is counterproductive as a strategy for preventing or reducing violence.”

Backing the bill will “reduce recidivism, control costs, make our communities safer, and allow all young people the opportunity to grow and change in an environment that is designed for them,” they wrote.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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